The Homecoming, a short story by pattersh. Date added: 2012-09-13. Times viewed: 444.
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- Intro: How much of this is fiction? In truth, the lion's share of this story happened as written, but I avoid being tarred a liar by claiming it fiction.
A slammed front door rattled the foundation, and my father’s booming voice chased off any possibility of adjusting to Eastern Standard Time.
“Is anybody up?!” He echoed through the trembling lathe and plaster of my room’s old walls, and I closed my eyes; that voice inspiring all the barely contained panic of my childhood. Sweaty palms clenched too tight, pulling blankets up over my ears, and the rest of me sinking unconsciously into quivering bedsprings.
The intervening years had been kind to me, even inspiring a modicum of respect from the old man, but faking sleep still seemed preferable to morning conversation. Besides, if he’d wanted to talk, he could have picked me up from the airport last night instead of sending my thankfully sober brother.
Just 30 hours ago, I’d flown the boiling sands and blast furnace winds of Kuwait for chilly September on the family farm. Abandoning the divorced and homeless lifestyle of a military contractor was an easy decision to make, but three hours home and I was already second-guessing the idea of staying with my parents. That he was up already only compounded my doubts.
Hardwood floors were whiny children under work boots as nearly 300 lbs of malice toured the sleeping house in a façade of consideration my father would never truly possess. Pausing at my mother’s bedroom, he tapped meekly on the door before squeaking it open.
“What are you still doing in bed?!” No indoor voice, this father mine; every word delivered with the authority of a Drill Instructor.
My mom’s muffled voice cut with exasperation through the folded hands of morning prayers, “Roger, it’s Saturday. I worked third shift last night.” She’d worked third shift every Friday night for the past 10 years.
Suddenly exposed as a thoughtless lout, my father sputtered, his momentum checked. “Well, is there any coffee?!”
“You’ll have to make it,” my mom’s voice was a sigh of resignation, in contrast to my father’s amicable tone. Having exhausted her morning cheer, he seemed rejuvenated; and that energy was not wasted, but spent promptly on my door.
Three quick knocks tested the hinges, but he left it closed, preferring to shout, “Ya’ up boy?”
The door popped open at that, and he stuck in his great grizzled mug, all spectacles and smirk. “Like hell you are! Get your ass outta’ bed and I’ll make some coffee. We got work to do!” The rust in his hair had faded to gray despite that youthful bluster, and those clumping boots stood silent, demanding a response.
I propped up on an elbow and nodded absently, gulping a big yawn of morning air and shivering myself awake. Then I started to sit up and he started to close the door, and I stopped and he stopped. The doorknob groaned under the strain of his meaty fist and the buttons of his frayed Carhart jacket clicked against the frame.
“Boy, if you need to sleep, I’ll go get your brother.”
My brother, Martin, lived a couple miles away in my grandmother’s old house, but he was a brother in name only. He’d been struck by lightning almost 10 years ago, and the shell remaining was as unreliable as it was alcoholic. The old man only mentioned him to provoke me out of bed, and I took the bait with a nod and a half-smile.
“Naw, I’m fine. Give me an hour to unpack, and I’ll grab a bite and be right out.”
“Fair enough.” He closed the door carefully and stomped out to the kitchen.
* * * * *
Two hours later, I stepped out of the house wearing traditional farming garb; jeans, a worn blue hoodie, and a pair of ragged-looking sneakers. Hands-in-pockets, I felt liberated to ignore the company dress-code, and began to reconsider my apprehension at coming home.
Overcast skies sharply contrasted the hazy blue and blazing sun I’d become accustomed too, and a cold breeze prodded me down the driveway. I picked my way along that trail of ankle-breaking fieldstones, past an old garage, over a gurgling brook, and into the barnyard proper. On my left, a machine building, housing tractors and larger farm equipment, towered over every out-building but the barn at the end of the drive.
The centenarian structure, standing some 30 feet tall and 60 feet wide was easily the largest building on the property. It was sandwiched between a newer looking add-on to the east (behind a massive concrete silo) and a milk-house that seemed to prop up the barn’s west wall; a remnant from my parent’s brief foray into the dairy business.
I walked with the awe of a monk approaching a cathedral when the old man yelled.
“Howard!” The shout was more the echo of a call, but the mumbled string of curses accompanying it snapped me alert like a 12 year old fearing the belt.
I called out my presence and jogged back across the yard. There was no response, but in the darkened bowels of the machine building, my father’s profanity laced ranting beseeched the heavens for justice. Then there was a crash, an “Aw Jesus Christ!” and the angry stomping squish of boots through mud as he emerged; scowling at my presence.
“Where the hell you been!?”
“Sleeping.” Since my emancipation from the farm, I made an effort to provoke the old man over little things. If he’d have caught the younger Howard sleeping, he’d have dragged me out by the hair, smacking me every step with anything handy. But as a grown man, I took special joy in antagonizing his ebbing virility, and my lack of hair only emboldened me.
“Goddamn it, I have work to do, and I need your help with that scaffolding.” The work in question was nothing pressing, or he’d have been more specific. Like the Cross to Christianity, farm work was his prop of martyrdom; though my sympathy had worn thin over the years.
“Alright, let’s do it.”
The scaffolding was as well maintained as any other piece of equipment my father owned, and I was directed back over the brook, across the driveway and around a junk pile to a bundle of pipes stacked in what was little more than a crawl space between his old garage and an unused goat barn. Each building seemed to sag into the other for support, and I was not eager to be between them.
“Just pull ‘em out and take ‘em down behind the barn,” he said, “and I’ll be there in a minute.”
Just pull them out, he said. No chores on this farm were ever that simple.
“Oh sh-it!” my voice broke a little as I lurched back from the menacing buzz of yellow jackets filling the crawlspace around the stack of two and three inch pipes. The scaffolding was lying right where the old man said, buried under a season’s leaves, but the armed guards were a novel surprise.
“What?! What is it?” The old man’s voice trembled with excitement at the thrill of the hunt, and I flushed with embarrassment, grateful for the cool breeze and timid morning sun. His boots crunched over uncut grass and odd bits of junk scattered haphazardly throughout the barnyard as he walked boldly to where I fumbled for a cigarette. “Whaddya’ got?”
“Bees,” I said, taking a drag. I wiped both hands on my still fresh jeans, and looked left and right for any stragglers from the nest.
“So that’s what you were flinching about,” he snorted with laughter. Dipping into a boxer’s crouch, he threw a couple light jabs at my shoulder. “You need to toughen up, boy!”
“What I need is some fucking bee spray or gasoline or something.”
“Hey!” he threw another jab, harder this time, but I slipped it and ducked away. He dropped his hands and stood upright, “Watch your language, boy. No need for that kinda’ talk.”
“Yes sir.” He wasn’t smiling, but his eyes twinkled a little, and I could tell he was glad for the company.
“Okay, here’s the plan. I’ve got a chain around those pipes, so what we’ll do is hook one of the links with the winch I have on the tractor.” He paused for effect. “Then we’ll drag the whole mess into the spring run.” The brook behind us, running through a culvert under the driveway, seemed to bubble its agreement, but I had my doubts.
“So we wait until they calm down, or what?”
“Boy, I don’t have all goddamn day! Go get the hose, and start spraying ‘em down. As soon as they get knocked down, you just run up and hook the bundle.”
I tried to swallow, but couldn’t work up enough spit.
He waved his hand, “Go on then, git. I’ll get the tractor and be back in a minute.”
I measured out the hose, and began spraying the pile. The bees were just getting calmed down when he showed up with the tractor, a Ford front-loader with 30 feet of 1 inch logging chain coiled up in the bucket. He stopped a ways back from the pile with his front wheels in the brook and started hollering through diesel fumes over the rumble of the engine.
“Go on and hook it!” He was waving his arms and pointing at the bucket-end hanging over the brook.
“Where’s the winch?”
His voice rose an octave in frustration, “Just use the goddamn chain!”
I dropped the hose, grabbed the hook end of the chain, and made my way over to that soggy pile of trouble. Using my foot, I scraped away enough leaves to expose the chain, still wrapped around the pipes; thank God. There were a few yellow jackets crawling over the pile, but wet wings bought me some time. I reached down to the exposed links to set the hook when the chain snapped tight. I glanced back over my shoulder to discover the old man had shorted me about two feet of chain.
I turned and waved, but he was fiddling with the tractor’s seat and didn’t see me. I was about to yell when something buzzed past my face, and I bolted. It wasn’t that calm, aw-shucks jog of a sprinter just crossing the finish line. It was the panicked crash of a deer through scrub-brush with a pack of hounds on its heels. I dropped the chain, and would have made it clean to the water, but for that long forgotten junk pile blocking the way, and my right foot dropped neatly into the open mouth of an empty one gallon paint can. I hesitated for half a step, afraid I’d broken my ankle, but fear of the swarm drove me stumbling and splashing, bucket-foot and all, past the tractor, onto the driveway, and up a small hill into the machine building before I regained my senses.
Yellow Jackets continued their merry dance in my mind’s eye, taunting and claiming those pipes as their own, but I intended to rout them out with poison or fire; preferably fire. The smoking corpses of mine enemies would compensate for the terror they inspired.
That terror’s origin was 200 yards and 28 years away, when as a six-year old, I’d stumbled over a nest of yellow jackets set in the ground while clearing brush for a new fence. The attack had offered little more than a buzz of warning, but fortunately for me, the old man had been handy. He’d scooped me up, tossed me in a nearby water-hole, and stripped me naked, picking every one of those vicious bastards off of my swollen hide. I had blacked out most of it and remembered little, but for the visceral terror inspired by that particular BUZZ. Later at dusk, we sprayed their hive with gasoline and exacted our revenge. And I remembered how to smile.
I hadn’t extracted my foot from the paint can before the old man found me, but I had recovered a shred of dignity.
“What the hell were you runnin’ like that for?”
“If you paid the fuck attention, you’d know!”
“Boy…” Then the old man laughed, and I gave a sheepish chuckle. It was hard to stay pissed with a paint can stuck on my foot. “You need a hand with that?” He started to bend down just as I worked my foot loose, and I waved him away.
“Nope, got it.” I stood up and tested my weight on the paint-scuffed sneaker before turning back to him. “Can you pull the tractor a little closer?”
“Already done. While you were farting around up here, I hooked onto the bundle and pulled everything into the spring run.”
My face fell. “Oh.”
“It’s alright. The nest wasn’t in the pipes, but we’ll let them cool off a bit just to be sure.” He rubbed his neck and glanced back at the swarm’s activity. “I’ll spray those bastards later.”
Fire would have been more satisfying, but I just nodded and waited for further instructions
The first set of scaffolding went up easy as a Sunday morning, but the second set was showing a few flaws.
“Look Dad, the ground’s not really even back here, and besides that it’s soft earth and grass.” I could feel the legs sinking unevenly into the ground as my weight shifted some 15 feet above. “Why don’t we bring down the tractor and level out a base? Then we can put down planking or something for stability.”
The old man exploded.
“Damn it Howard, I have other shit to do today, and I’m not going to waste half a goddamn day monkeying around leveling the back side of the barn.”
I started climbing down, and he relented.
“Get down from there, and inside the barn I have a stack of pine slats I was using to even out the foundation we set last summer.” His voice maintained its condescending tone, but I accepted the olive branch for what it was. Propping boards under the feet of the scaffolding was better than nothing, but still felt too much like fixing a wobbly table with folded paper napkins for my taste. I crossed my fingers and prayed this technique would survive through dessert.
My father was a union man, and I learned early-on the value of a work stoppage in controlling terms of employment. Throughout my childhood, negotiations tilted sharply in favor of management, but outgrowing my dependence on his capital for food, shelter, and goodwill allowed me greater latitude in setting the terms of labor. No longer could his strike-breakers (hands, belt, sticks and stones) turn the tide, and at age 17, I had leveled the negotiating table for good. He’d made the requisite concessions, albeit grudgingly, and we only fought over little things, like safety, anymore.
The rising scaffolding cast a short shadow as the sun neared its apex, and the wind settled to a lazy swirl from the west. The old man grumbled at my tinkering, and finally sacrificed an oak plank for the base. Of course, it was balanced on a rock at one end and a stack of pine slats and bark shims on the other, but the old man’s grumbling was wearing me down, and the peer pressure of expectant cows herding around to watch finally broke my resistance.
“Alright,” I said.
Ever the fatalist, I accepted my lot. “It looks pretty level to me.”
“About goddamn time.”
I climbed back to my perch and he fed me pipes and cross bars, and in no time at all, I was two stories up; close enough to the south wall of the barn that I could lean against it, but with nothing to grab onto should the tinker-toy construct tip over. I wiped sweaty palms on my jeans feeling more and more like the main event at a three ring circus, and the bar I was standing on shifted slightly under my weight. The whole tower seemed to shift every time I moved, and my movements became slower and more deliberate the higher I went.
I glanced down to voice my concerns, and the old man was handing me---a board?
“What’s that?” It was a 2”x6” plank of solid oak, 10 feet long and heavy as a corpse. I wrestled it up to my perch, and balanced it across the top.
“Well,” he cleared his throat and cocked back that dirty old baseball cap of his to glance up and ruin my afternoon. “This last set of pipes doesn’t fit the first two, but if we lay planks on top of what we have, it’ll work alright.”
“You want to balance a third set of pipes on 2 boards balanced a top 2 sets of scaffolding, that are themselves teetering on a plank, a rock, and a bunch of leftover bits of pine? Will it even reach?” In hindsight, my response should have been a simple NO, but the impossible nature of this death-defying stunt appealed to my inner martyr.
“Uh, no, but I have a step ladder.” The cow nearest us shook her head and walked away as I began climbing down. He took a step back and crossed his arms impatiently. “What are you doing?”
“I’m getting a shovel,” I said without stopping.
To bury your dumb ass, I thought to myself, but out loud, “It’s still pretty tipsy up top, so I’m gonna level off the base some more.”
“Oh Jesus Christ! Stop bein’ such a damn baby!”
“It’ll only take a minute.”
“Howard, we’ve been at this all goddamn morning, and I have other things I need to get done today.”
I pulled out a cigarette and sat heavily on the lowest crossbar. The scaffolding creaked in protest, and the right post nearest the barn slipped off its uneven stack of pine slats to hang ominously over grass like the Sword of Damocles.
The old man uncrossed his arms and nodded, walking inside the milk-house while I finished my smoke. He returned a few minutes later with a cinderblock and a few scraps of plywood.
“I want to shore up that back leg a little,” he told me, and I jumped up to give him a hand. It was a start, and I appreciated the gesture, so we set about reinforcing the base as best we could without resorting to shovels, or any other idea not originating in the old man’s brain. When I again ascended the scaffolding minutes later, it was noticeably more stable, though still less stable than I’d have preferred. I recovered my seat on the top crossbar facing the pasture behind the barn and hooked a foot around its support, unconsciously wedding myself to the project; for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health… until this project was complete and I walked away under my own steam; God willing.
I leaned down and accepted the other plank from my dad, maneuvering it into position and began pulling up the third set of pipes. He climbed to the top with surprising nimbleness, and together we situated the final set atop sturdy oak. The top level teetered like a piece of playground equipment, but the old man had brought a pocketful of wood shims that we wedged under its feet. Satisfied with its stability, we started working our way down.
“Hang tight kid and I’ll go grab the last boards.”
“All right.” I kept climbing lower.
“Didn’t you used to jump out of airplanes?” his tone was mocking.
“That was different,” I said shaking my head. “If the chute didn’t open, I wouldn’t have felt a thing, but if these bars tip over, I’ll be busted up and layin’ in cow shit.”
“You need to quit being such a sissy.”
At that moment, something buzzed my ear and childhood nightmares of the swarm surged over those levees restraining my acrophobia; and I flinched. I would have fallen, but for that fear-of-heights-inspired vise-like grip on the nearest support.
The whole structure tipped on 2 legs, but my dad threw himself backwards, a 68 year old swinging counter-weight, dropping it back on the wobbly foundation with a sharp crack. The unsecured top story clattered precipitously, but held its footing even as the hastily placed shims clattered down around us.
My dad glared at me, and I wanted to laugh and cry all at once.
“DON’T do that again.” He was solemn, too solemn, and I laughed in spite of myself.
“Sorry Dad.” The clammy perspiration of near-death oozed from every pore, and I shivered in the late summer breeze.
“Any one you walk away from, right?” He took a deep breath and held it for a full second. “Are you all right to do this?”
“Yup, so long as you are,” my flippant response was tinged with nervous laughter, and he grinned in spite of himself. “How’s the old ticker?”
“All right.” He shook his head.
“How about you stay put, and I’ll climb down for the topside boards.”
“Well, get your ass moving. I don’t have all day.”
I started climbing down, but in a fit of youthful exuberance, decided to jump.
“Careful boy!” his warning was well-intentioned, but slow and I wouldn’t have listened anyway. From the last crossbar, the drop was only four feet, and proved an irresistible challenge to a man of 34 going on 14. I took the landing well, dropping to a crouch, but things went awry as I stood back up, or tried to.
The pinch began in the lower right of my back and sprinted south like a sewing machine down the backside of my leg, making it heavy and bent, so that each step was balanced like so much scaffolding on the toes of my right foot.
I’d been lucky all morning, and most of the afternoon, and yet the fates chose now to trim my thread?
“You all right?”
“Yeah.” I was not. It came out a grunt, and the old man knew a lie when it was thrown with a little heft.
“How bad is it?”
“Bad enough.” He had to know, having suffered back surgery for a similar injury some years ago, but playing dumb was a genetic trait, and he had other things to get done today. No sense in halting work for a self-inflicted injury.
“Well, help me get those boards and that ladder up, and I can take care of the rest myself.”
I shrugged, and pulled myself upright, handing him boards and beginning to climb. That gut-kicked pain settled over me as my body registered the injury. I’d be laid up but good in a couple hours whether I iced and aspirin-ed it or not, so I moved as fast as I could against the swelling protest.
My body slowed with the injury, and seemed to synch with the swaying poles, crossbars, and planking of the rickety scaffolding. The apparent stability, in turn, made the idea of balancing a stepladder at the apex seemed fairly rational. As fate would have it, the ladder even reached the rooftop with two steps to spare, but the wind was picking up, and my movements were catching, and growing jerky with pain.
“I have to climb down.”
“What? Boy, you’re just falling apart, aren’t ya’?” He popped the stepladder open and balanced it on the top planks. “Okay then, I can handle it from here.”
“Is there any ice in the house?”
“No,” he thought for a second, “but I do have a couple big bags of freezer peas.”
“Good enough.” Gingerly, and as quickly as possible, I picked my way to the bottom. Every movement twinged and pulled, and not even the cooling air could stop sweat from breaking out.
I made the bottom just as he stepped onto the roof, and breathed a sigh of relief; hobbling off in search of a frozen something to lay on. It wasn’t until I was halfway to the house that I paused to worry about the old man.
“You goddamn piece of shit!” echoed up the driveway from the barn, and I turned carefully to check his progress. He was hunched a little, and his back and head showed above the peak of the barn’s roof as he struggled with rusty sheets of galvanized steel, and I relaxed.
The screech of sheet metal being pulled back into place, and the bang of hammer on roofing nail mingled with more cussing, when a panicked cry broke my limping stride, and I turned back to see the cause.
No old man hammering on the roof. No old man anywhere.
I tried to run, but the best I could manage was a staggering shuffle, adrenaline helping to numb the throbbing bolts coursing ass to foot.
“Dad?!” My voice was pitched and straining for a response, any response in spite of the cosmic justice in him becoming the victim of his own contraption. I heard cussing as I reached the milkhouse on the barn’s western wall, and slowed to a walk. I relaxed even more as I saw the tower still swaying against the south side of the barn; complete with stepladder standing defiantly like a cherry on top. Then I saw the old man.
He stood leaning against the barn’s cinderblock foundation, hat on the ground, and digging around in his hair like a grizzly bear after a tick. Welts covered the side of his face, and curses still trickled from his lips.
“Dirty goddamn sons of bitches,” he mumbled sullenly to himself, not noticing my approach.
“You all right?” I smiled through the pain, and joined him against the barn as I pulled out a cigarette. A muffled crunch sounded from between his fingers, and he pulled the last lifeless carcass out of his hair.
“Yeah,” he looked up. “Goddamn wasps.”
“Fucking wasps,” I said, taking a drag.
“Yeah,” he laughed and I grinned, and we left the tower leaning against the barn that night. I ended up needing a trip to the hospital, and he drove me there; giving me shit the entire way. He bitched a little about the things he had to get done, but we figured they’d keep till morning.
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